When I talk about my experiences with guns in the military, now memories nearly two decades old, somewhere in the conversation the listener inevitably demands that I admit I never really liked guns, that they scared me, that I was nervous, that we were all nervous, that we only did it because we were told to, that guns were alien and terrifying, and that I will never, ever use a gun again, cross my heart and hope the Democrats win in ’08.
But that would be like saying I never liked women, that they scare me, that I renounce my cravings, that when it comes to being a woman with a predilection for the ladies, I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.
All these statements would be lies.
The first time I was with a woman was a rushed, ecstatic culmination
after months of a long, slow tease and decades of ignorance and denial. That is exactly how it was for me with guns. We — two dozen basic trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, 1983 — had itched to be on the rifle range, and we talked and whispered about it constantly, whenever talking was allowed, through several weeks of long droning classes, endless marching, foul food, classes on personal hygiene and military discipline, four a.m. runs in military formation, and endless pull-ups. Determinism had slowly purged our ranks of the wack jobs, bedwetters and chunky chickens (also called, in even more direct military fashion, "fat girls") who threatened our ability to Fly, Fight and Win. A mild collective case of Stockholm Syndrome caused us to begin agreeing heartily with anything the training instructors shouted, including the prediction, "Ladies, you’re gonna love shooting!"
The M16A1 is a military classic: an eight-pound, thirty-round, air-cooled, magazine-fed rifle, black and beautiful, with a cleaning kit tucked into a cunning hidden compartment in its butt-stock. When we finally picked it up, if there was a woman in the room who had the tiniest qualm (perhaps the very young thing who had arrived at Basic with her teddy bear and a box of sanitary napkins), no one owned up to it. The sissy-la-las had already been kicked out, and their gender-betraying weepy ways were not missed, not even by the very young thing, whose eyes shone as she hoisted the rifle for the very first time.
In some respects, it is easy to understand why we recruits cottoned to guns so easily; why, on the day of weapons training, we rose well before the pre-dawn bugle call; why we were washed, ready and in formation on the cement apron in front of our barracks long before our TI showed up; why, on the long, bumpy bus ride to the range, we were silent with thrilled anticipation; and why the rifle felt so good when we finally touched it, like a promise come home to roost. We were self-selected. Without a military draft in effect — let alone a draft that selected women — the armed forces were filled with young people who wanted to be there, and "there" was not just a job or an organization, but a way of life, one that hinted, however abstractly, of a world where guns were acceptable and often necessary.
For every woman who joined up with a decade of experience hunting squirrels with Daddy, there were two who had never touched, even seen, a gun. Yet somehow, in the mysterious equation wherein we know things about ourselves, these women knew they were, shall I say, predisposed. Years of research by the Department of Defense have revealed that among recruits, more women than men are unfamiliar with guns, but after qualifying on the range — which women do with expertise equal to men, despite studies I suspect were intended to demonstrate otherwise — they feel equally comfortable with guns.
We each have a private path to the discovery of self and desire. The universe has a pecking order which insists that early, independent knowledge is best: the young daughter who begs to go possum-hunting and bags a deer on her first trip; the gay man who always knew he was different (and, more to the point, how); the transsexual who has known since the dawn of consciousness that he had the right brain in the wrong body; the trial lawyer who as a toddler clambered onto a tree stump and exhorted. But more of us, the less highly evolved, stumble forward blindly in life, tugged this way and that by cultural rules and imperatives. A chance occurrence — an encounter with a gun or a woman’s soft lips — changes everything. Then, if we are fortunate, this encounter submits us to the mysterious imperatives of life itself. I look at the objects of my desire: women and guns, yes, but also roses, Wellfleet oysters, silver earrings, dry red wine, the color green in nearly every hue, fat new books, the gentle tweezing process of revising an essay, and the peppery fragrance of eucalyptus trees after a heavy rain; I understand that these are my desires, acquired slowly and haphazardly over nearly fifty years; but I do not understand why, nor perhaps should I. I am merely grateful that my desires and I got together in the first place.
On the weapons range I lay prone, my rifle ready. I silently begged our weapons instructor, Sergeant Ireland, to give us the order to fire. The wet heat of a summer afternoon in Texas pressed through my uniform, flattening my back like a huge unseen hand, but a broad green awning shaded my novice eyes from the fierce August sun, and my belly and breasts and thighs were deliciously comfortable from the cool, immaculate cement floor of the firing line. My breathing rasped harsh in my head, all other sounds muffled behind huge red Air-Force-issue ear defenders wrapped tight around my sweating skull.
I was supposed to be eyes-forward, focused on the concentric paper target positioned in front of me across fifty feet of scruffy tan dirt, but I slid my eyes sideways just to see if the airman to my right was as excited as I was. She caught my eye and tilted a grin in my direction. We quickly slid our eyes forward again as Sergeant Ireland walked behind us, lecturing twenty-four recruits one last time about Attention to Detail, Safety (which, he frequently reminded us, was Paramount), and Never Pointing Your Weapon At Anything You Don’t Plan to Shoot.
No one explains the cruelest trick of life. You are happy, and life is good, and the years roll on, until you wake up one night, terrified, because you realize that the worse thing that can ever happen to you is for something to happen to her, and there is no way to avoid that eventual tragedy other than dying first, which is almost as frightening. It is all infinitely worse because she is a woman and the logic of your heart insists there is nothing better than a woman, particularly this woman. You are caught in this conundrum; your attention to detail failed you miserably and completely, way back when it was still possible to leave. So you lie fretting in the dark while your beloved breathes in and out in the night air, and you sense the entrapment of desire, the very danger of life itself.
Compared to that, a gun is harmless.
On the firing range, we finally heard the command:
I lifted the M16 and cocked my head so I could focus through the rifle’s sights. Now the target looked grey and distant and a little unfocused, its dark circles less distinct, but I braced my shoulder and hoped for the best.
We were all perfectly still for two long beats. My breath rattled in my head. I concentrated: Gun. Target. Gun. Target. The world
contracted into a universe populated only by my arms, my eyes, my ragged breath, the M16 and a square of paper hanging motionless in the summer heat.
At last we heard:
As I had been taught, I stopped breathing. The tip of my left index finger, finally liberated from waiting, retracted the trigger of the rifle. The M16 opened up with a glorious power and raucous blattering louder than anything I had heard in my life, a sound that drowned all thought and replaced it with a pure white space. For a split second, the gun was stronger than me, shaking my shoulders and causing me to levitate very slightly from the concrete floor I was splayed on, but I trained my body against the weapon and concentrated — gun, target, gun, target — as the rifle spat bullets through the moist summer air. Across the range, dark spots instantaneously pocked twenty-four targets. Flat on the ground and burdened with our rifles, we could not see one another, but I could tell we had done well by the triumphant pitch of Sergeant Ireland’s voice as he shouted:
We immediately stopped, then took breath. For one long beat the sound of machine-gun fire continued to travel across the air, the faintest echo of an echo. As marksmen do everywhere, we promptly looked at our targets, which to our gratification we had blown to kingdom come. The air was pungent with a tangy fragrance bitter in the back of my throat — the delicious tongue-coating flavor of gunpowder I would come to anticipate and crave — and my hands were warm and damp; I wiped my fingers on my fatigues, away from the creases so my uniform wouldn’t lose its spray-starch edge. I was spent, amazed and almost immediately hungry for more. My body ached, partly from the unfamiliar position on the cement, and partly from joy.
I have been advised I could stop liking guns if I tried; I could excise that dark, rotten spot that threatens to spread and taint the flesh of my soul. I imagine there are books. Study tapes. Meditative exercises. I would not be surprised to hear, particularly in these parts, that someone had established an ex-gun movement, where through daily rituals and a list of proscribed thoughts and activities taped to the refrigerator door, I could claim to purge myself of the way I feel about weapons.
But denial not only makes the heart grow fonder; it makes the heart grow desperate, makes it panic with subterranean keening. I have counseled myself, in a quavering voice in my head, that I will simply not have a gun in my life, that it is far too much risk and trouble, that no one will understand, that it will be the ruin of me, that these urges are fundamentally wrong. My desire feels disloyal, shameful, and selfish; it stands between us, this secret I cannot share.
But despite my daily promises, my straining for internal discipline, in the face of desire I feel the citadel walls buckling. I look at guns on the internet; I hide in the stacks at the public library and pore over gun catalogs; I push open the door in my head and replay every moment I ever spent with guns, reliving the finger in the trigger, the pocked target, the tang of gunpowder, the afterglow of satiation. When I can’t bear it any more, when my brain itches with desire, I drive fifteen miles up the peninsula, telling myself I am merely investigating this subject for research, as if anyone asked me to write about guns. On one of the wearier blocks of El Camino Real, where every store has roll-down metal awnings to protect it at night, I park in front of a gun shop and walk in.
I am reassured that my secret is safe, because the huge storefront windows are obscured nearly to ceiling height by the store’s goods: racks of hunting vests and pants, some bright orange, some camouflage; brown cardboard cases of survival food; two walls of holsters, gun belts and bullet magazines; displays crowded with shimmering fishing lures; and vast stacks of miscellaneous gun and hunting tchotchkes, most in ever-fashionable black. I walk up to the glass counter, which is packed with pistols neatly lined up on velvet with price tags turned out so I don’t even have to ask. I look for a while as a businessman in rolled-up sleeves leans one elbow on the cash register and talks about how he’s going to cook the wild duck he shot last weekend. The beefy guy restocking the holster selection half-listens, nodding, occasionally cutting his eyes my way with a friendly glance.
I feel timid, the way I felt a decade earlier, freshly out of the military and trying to come out of the closet, the first few times I went into a lesbian bookstore in the Village (unsurprisingly gone today, as most gay and lesbian bookstores are gone, victims of assimilation, acceptance and the Web). I was living in New York, a period when I was disabusing myself of the notion that I wanted to live there again. In this small store on a hard-to-find side street, I would browse the pitiful selection of well-thumbed books on dusty shelves while thick-waisted older women with crew cuts stood around jawing about some big old contretemps that had taken place at the Gay and Lesbian Center the previous night.
I always wondered if I was supposed to join in the conversation, or just buy my book and leave. Leave is what I did every time, wimp that I was, though I would ever so daringly remove my purchase from its bag on my way home so everyone on the subway car would know I was reading The Price of Salt or the latest issue of The Lesbian Connection. Each time I did this, tilting the book or magazine so the title was visibly displayed, I hoped I might then lock eyes with the love of my life, sitting right across from me on the Number 7 train, or at least meet someone who could give me a clue; though these things naturally never happened — well, they did, but not on the subway.
In the gun store, I am wondering what I should say to the man restocking the holsters when from behind the business end of the gun counter materializes a plump, pretty woman in a sleeveless white top, glossy brown curls streaming past her shoulders. She is smiling at me. (Perhaps the man at the counter pressed a hidden button: CHICK ALERT! GET THE LADY CLERK!) I tell her it’s been a long time since I shot a gun, and I’m really just looking. (In a gun shop, the catechism begins: "Have you ever shot a gun?" The right answer is "Yes, and it was good." I can never tell if I gain or lose points by reciting my conquests: M16; .22; .357; and the loaded .38 special I carried in war-game exercises, lightly touching its leather holster from time to time, the way I unconsciously touch my breasts when I’m reading a particularly good book.)
"Is this for personal protection, or for recreation?" asks the shopgirl, delicately.
"I’m not sure. Maybe both," I say, mesmerized by the candy in the counter.
I see from the shopgirl’s smile that she knows I’ve been thinking about a gun all along. Without prompting, she reaches under the counter and pulls out a piece of paper listing local rifle ranges, the letters blurred from repeated copying. Withdrawing a pen tucked into her bodice, she circles three ranges she says I will "really like" (though I don’t know her criteria, and I am afraid to ask). She then says she has just the thing for me and disappears into the back of the store, returning a moment later with a smooth black plastic case. She opens it, revealing a nine millimeter semi-automatic Glock, its black matte contours nestled in dimpled pink foam. With one brisk motion she cracks back its slide, revealing the empty, waiting chamber, then offers the Glock to me butt-first.
My heart thumps. I slowly accept the gun with my left hand, watching through the corner of my eyes so I know the shopgirl is observing how nicely, how safely, how carefully I handle the pistol, always pointing it down and away. This delicacy, this attention to detail, this awareness that I must Never Point At Anything I Don’t Plan to Shoot: in my shyness, this is the closest I can get to flirting, an activity I should not be engaged in anyway — except that as long as I am in a gun shop, an activity which I know would earn me a severe scolding from my beloved, I might as well be naughty all around.
The gun feels much too good. It feels as good as the first time I cupped a woman’s breast in my hands, a moment where everything I had ever known before suddenly seemed wrong or boring or grey. The Glock fits my hand perfectly, with that same compelling sense of magical, inevitable destiny. My index finger curls in the trigger, and I gently heft the pistol, considering its weight and admiring its delicately tooled crevices, its sumptuously rounded muzzle. I run my right hand across the twin nubs of its sights while inhaling the light musk scent of gun oil; then I slowly trace my fingers along the smooth, silky curves of the barrel before toying with the dark recesses of the pistol’s frame. I feel myself succumb. I am born for this gun. It is costly; it is dangerous; it is beautiful. It is, perhaps, irresistible. n°
©2007 K.G. Schneider and Nerve.com